The practice of employing children as domestic workers remains prevalent despite being illegal
t age eleven, when children are supposed to be carefree – eat, play, study and be merry - Faisal* was found living on a pavement in Sector G-6 in Islamabad. Wearing dirt-stained clothes, he looked malnourished. The child was reported to the Child Protection Institute (CPI) by a non-government organisation. Efforts were made to trace his parents. The child informed the child protection officer (CPO) that he had been working at a house in Faisalabad. Once, when he did not give his salary to his father, it made him furious. After the father gave the child a beating, the child ran away and reached Islamabad on board a train. The CPO reached out to the family by contacting various NGOs and the Child Welfare Department. The parents were located but said they were unable to travel to Islamabad on account of their poverty. He was reunited with the family only after an NGO extended financial support.
“Children on the streets get reported to the CPI but those working in households or behind closed doors remain invisible. Unfortunately, mechanisms meant for child protection cannot intervene unless a crime is reported. The challenge is to reach out to the children and give them their basic right of a dignified and protected life that a child deserves,” says Rabeea Hadi, CPI’s director general.
Hadi says that despite laws against the practice of hiring a child for domestic work, nearly half the households hire children as they are easy to control. She says it is mainly poverty that pushes parents to give away their children to such households. “Parents or guardians receive paishgi for their children as well as their monthly salaries. Go to any posh restaurant in Islamabad and you will find child domestic workers taking care of the children of the employer(s). This is a visible violation of the law but no action is taken against such families.”
Sadly, the practice of employing children as domestic workers is prevalent throughout Pakistan. They have no defined working hours and are mostly unable to access education and healthcare. In addition, they are at risk of malnourishment and abuse. Cases of extreme abuse against child domestic workers are occasionally reported in the media. However, most stories remain behind closed doors where these children waste their childhood while making money for their families.
Some the cases of child domestic abuse have received attention due to reporting by the media. Memories of the Tayyaba case are still fresh. After pictures of brutal torture on a child maid by the wife of a sessions judge went viral, the Supreme Court took a suo motu notice and the couple were tried and convicted for the crime.
Child domestic work is not categorised as hazardous. However, the children constantly face various hazards as several tasks that are part of their work – carrying heavy items, handling dangerous items like knives, using the stove and toxic chemicals for cleaning – are dangerous.
International Labour Organisation studies have concluded that child labour in domestic work remains a widespread but hidden phenomenon worldwide. It is estimated that 4.4 million girls and 2.8 million boys are engaged in domestic work globally. A study by the ILO, Child Labour in Domestic Work in Pakistan: A Scoping Study of 2022, determined that one in every four households in Pakistan employs a child in domestic work, predominantly girls, aged 10 to 14 years.
The study found that most of the children engaged in domestic work were between 10 and 15 years old and working to support their families. Most girls had begun working with their parents (typically their mothers) when they were 6 or 7 years old, before shifting to independent work at around the age of 10. In almost all instances, parents had forced their children into work to cover household expenses.
The study said that in many cases, the children’s fathers were not the main breadwinners, either because they had died, left the family or were on drugs or suffered from an illness. In some instances, the girls were engaged in domestic work to pay for their brothers’ education. The children involved part-time in domestic work tended to live in urban slums and their employers within walking distance of their homes.
Unfortunately, child domestic labour is socially and culturally ‘acceptable’ despite being explicitly illegal. The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019 and the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act, 2022 prohibit the employment of children under the age of 15 (the Punjab) and 16 (ICT) years from working in a household in any capacity. The Balochistan Employment of Children (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2021 prohibits a child or adolescent from being employed or permitted to work as domestic help.
The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2017 specifies a child as a person who has not attained 14 years of age. Children under 14 years are not allowed to work. The Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 2015, has abolished the practice of bonded labour.
The Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018, was introduced with the purpose of combating trafficking in persons, especially women and children. Besides this, Section 328-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which penalises cruelty to a child, is applicable across the country.
Despite all these laws, the practice of hiring children for domestic work is rampant across the country, especially in urban settings. Rabeea Hadi says that the real challenge is to create awareness around the issue and work for effective implementation of the laws. “Currently, the protection mechanisms against child labour are scattered among several departments. There is a need to streamline all these mechanisms for focused and serious efforts to eradicate this practice from the society,” she says.
*Name changed to protect identity
The writer is a reporter for The News International